Why do I feel like crap?

Skin feels sensitive… aching joints
Tired..tired..tired.  Can’t I just make it go away?

 Getting a cold is no fun at all.  Before you go running for the ‘over the counter cold medicine’, consider what your miraculous body is actually doing when you get a cold.

Colds are caused by viruses. The common cold is really an umbrella term referring to many viruses which cause symptoms in the respiratory tract- from the nose to the lungs. About 50% of the time, the “common cold” is caused by the rhinovirus. Rhinoviruses thrive in temperatures between 91-97 degrees F—the temperature of an average nose. Rhinovirus seems like a fancy term, but  “Rhino” is the Greek word for nose.  The word “virus” comes from Latin and means “slimy liquid”.  So the common cold is frequently caused by the “slimy nose”! You’ll hear more about slimy noses later, but blame it on your immune system.

When a virus enters a cell through the nose, the immune system embarks on a complex and effective dance of defense.  There are two types of immune responses. Humoral immunity involves the use of antibodies, a defense formed in response to a previous infectious invasion.  Cell-mediated refers to the cellular response to invaders.   Below is an illustration of the ‘cell-mediated’ immune response to a viral invasion, like this rhinovirus.

So what does the immune system have to do with feeling like crap?  Note the mentions of “histamine” and “interferon“.


2. HISTAMINE: Cold symptom culprit #1
5. INTERFERON: Cold symptom culprit #2

Viruses don’t cause you to feel achy, tired, drippy and generally bad.  It’s your immune response to the virus.  The reason you have the runny, swollen sinuses and sneezing is the release of histamine which occurs when the virus invades the cell.  Histamine is a powerful and effective messenger.  Histamine makes blood vessel walls easier for cells to move through so that the cells can respond to invasions.  The cells, answering the histamines “mayday”, crowd into the virus infected areas.  This movement of cells to the infected area causes tissues, like your sinuses, to swell.  The swollen tissues make it hard to breathe, and you may feel “stuffy”.  Histamine can be credited for causing  sneezing, runny nose and  watery eyes.

Achy? Tired?  Blame these symptoms on the release of the immune chemical,  interferon. Interferon helps to prevent viruses from making more viruses.  Interferon is a key component to producing a powerful response to a viral invader.  Interferons are also implicated in several uncomfortable symptoms experienced with colds, like body aches.  A recent study from Germany has found interferon to blame for “sickness behavior“- the foggy head, apathy and fatigue which people commonly experience during a cold.

Cold symptoms can be really crappy. No fun at all.  But when you do experience the aches, sneezing, stuffiness and runny nose, wrap your arms around yourself and give you a big hug! Say “thank you body, you are so awesome”!



  1. Carrie Nygren

    Very informative! Completely new information for me that it is actually my own immune system causing the discomfort, not the virus itself. Who knew?! A well-written article 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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